NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. officials embraced a peace plan here Thursday offered by fundamentalist cleric Muqtada Sadr, raising hopes for an end to weeks of fighting between his militia and American troops that has left several hundred dead and damaged Islamic shrines.
Sadr, whose Al Mahdi militia seized control of key parts of Najaf last month, unveiled a four-point proposal brokered by moderate Shiite leaders that calls for him to relinquish control of government buildings and send some of his armed followers home.
In return, U.S. forces would pull back to a few small bases in Najaf and the neighboring city of Kufa, and would be gradually replaced by Iraqi police.
Decisions about the future of the militia and whether Sadr would have to surrender to face criminal charges that he plotted the slaying of a rival would be made later by Shiite Muslim leaders, not by the United States.
"This is happy news to save the blood of our people and a victory for the forces of democracy," said Mouwafak Rabii, Iraq's national security advisor, who helped draft the plan.
The tentative peace deal represents a significant compromise for the United States, which amassed 2,000 troops outside Najaf in April with the stated objectives of "killing or capturing" Sadr and "crushing" his militia.
Since then, Sadr's militia has led a string of deadly Shiite rebellions throughout southern Iraq and in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, fomenting anti-Americanism and challenging the view that the U.S.-led occupation was on track.
If accepted, the plan would allow Sadr to remain free in Najaf for the time being and clear the way for him to transform his militia into a legitimate political party.
It is the second time in recent weeks that U.S. officials have found it necessary to step back from their original aims in order to end bloodshed.
In the battle over the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Fallouja, U.S. officials dropped demands that insurgents there be "pacified" and surprised many by pulling out of the city and handing over authority to a former general in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army. U.S. troops had entered Fallouja after the killings and mutilations of four American civilian contractors. As in Najaf, the fighting left many Iraqi civilians dead.
The cease-fire has held since May 3, but it came at a political price. Many Iraqis, including Shiite leaders, criticized the United States for turning to the same former Baathist Party officials whom it once condemned.
The offer in Najaf reflects growing pressure on the United States by mainstream Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to end the standoff in the city, and a desire to bring political stability in Iraq as the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority prepares to transfer sovereignty to an interim government June 30.
"If Muqtada were killed, there would be an endless revolution," said Abdul Karim Mohammedawi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.
The offer came with some behind-the-scenes nudging by Sistani, a widely respected cleric in Najaf who has been increasingly alarmed as fighting has crept closer to the city center.
The gold-domed Imam Ali shrine in Najaf suffered minor damage from errant projectiles this week. Sistani, a reclusive leader who lives near the shrine, has urged both U.S. forces and Sadr's militia to leave the city.
U.S. officials expressed cautious optimism about the proposal.
"It's a positive first step," Dan Senor, a spokesman for the coalition, said during a briefing in Baghdad. "We applaud the Iraqi leaders who have stepped forward and tried to work this out among themselves."
In response to the proposal, American troops agreed to suspend offensive operations in Najaf. But military officials said no final agreements had been reached. Previous attempts to reach a truce in Najaf have failed.
Residents of the city expressed hope that the peace agreement would stick.
"There has been so much suffering and so many civilians killed," said Dhurgham Ahmed, a clerk at a nearly vacant hotel one block from the Imam Ali shrine. "We need a peaceful resolution. If the bombing and shooting continue, people are going to leave the city. The Americans are getting closer to the city center."
After weeks of nightly gun battles, an uneasy calm gripped the mostly deserted streets Thursday as residents waited to hear whether a deal had been struck. Shops, many scorched and bullet-riddled, were shuttered. At the cemetery, where some of the fiercest battles took place, large parts of the perimeter wall lay in piles of rubble.
Despite talk of an impending withdrawal, both U.S. forces and Al Mahdi fighters were visible throughout Najaf and Kufa late Thursday afternoon, as they had been for weeks.
Along the main corridor connecting the cities, some militia members roamed openly with rocket-propelled grenade launchers on their shoulders and others stood watch with AK-47s in narrow alleyways. Just 200 yards away, U.S. troops set up a checkpoint at a traffic circle and were searching cars.
But as of Friday morning, there were no reports of fighting or shooting in Najaf.
"The momentum of the cease-fire is already in operation," said Ahmad Chalabi, one of several members of the Iraqi Governing Council who traveled to Najaf on Thursday to offer their support.
One of those council members, Salama Khafaji, escaped an assassination attempt as she traveled back to Baghdad. One bodyguard was killed, one was injured and Khafaji's son was missing after the attack. Khafaji, one of three women in the 25-member council, replaced Aqila Hashimi, who was assassinated in September.
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the senior military spokesman in Iraq, dismissed the notion that the peace deal could be considered a victory for Sadr, noting that the cleric's forces had been driven back in the cities of Kut, Karbala and now Najaf and Kufa.
Times staff writer Charles Duhigg in Baghdad contributed to this report.